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Illusion in Painting

An Attempt at Philosophical Interpretation


Mateusz Salwa

This book aims to present trompe-l’œil painting, which epitomizes the myth of the illusionistic image – an early modern way of thinking about pictures, according to which it is possible to create an image identical to what it represents that at the same time preserves its own pictorial identity. Trompe-l’œil, despite being a marginal genre, embodied an ideal that painting should attain, and therefore is a good point of departure for analyzing issues such as (aesthetic) illusion in art. As the myth undermines Plato’s aesthetics, it is his philosophy of art, with its dichotomies of appearance/reality or mimesis/diegesis that offers the most useful context for the discussion of this topic and shows that trompe-l’œil is a playful and ironic genre, which has cognitive value as well.
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II. Trompe-L ’oeil: the Aspects


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II. Trormpe-L’oeil: the Aspects

1. The mirror of Nature, mimesis

Illusionistic painting – and perforce Gombrich’s reflection – is part of the aforementioned Plato-Kant canon, in which the “final vocabulary” relies on the opposition between appearance and reality. Rorty, when describing this type of philosophy, notices that it is dominated by a variety of images and metaphors, the most important being the image of the mind as a mirror. A mind thus conceived can be perfected: both Descartes and Kant sought nothing else, searching for the most accurate representations. Rorty sums up this image as follows:

The notion of an unclouded Mirror of Nature is the notion of a mirror which would be indistinguishable from what was mirrored, and thus would not be a mirror at all.1

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